Forty years ago July 20th, I wasn't anywhere particularly memorable during the first landing of humans on the moon — like most everyone else, I was watching TV in my family's living room. But I well remember my conflicted emotions. Enormous excitement and pride in the "giant leap" and a sense that we were on the threshold of a long-promised Star Trek-style future. But I was also worried that we'd screw it up.
I was an opinionated, sometimes obnoxiously so, 15-year-old in 1969 who was already fully engaged with the culture and politics of that time. I followed the election of 1968 closely (I was for Bobby Kennedy, then Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon). I had already marched in anti-Vietnam War protests, smoked my first joint, seen the Jefferson Airplane. Like many of the Woodstock generation, my view of technology and science was very conflicted.
The man-on-the-moon moment came at a time when it seemed to both fulfill the promise of the New Frontier and John F. Kennedy's dream of civic and scientific accomplishment. But Kennedy was dead, Nixon was now running both JFK's war and his space program, and the technologies of death seemed to overshadow the technological good the Space Age represented to many of us Boomers.
For kids in Seattle, Florida space launches were about as far away as geographically possible in the continental U.S., but the New Frontier had been brought closer by the 1962 Seattle world's fair which had been billed as the "launch pad" for the Space Age. Bigger celebrities than Elvis had come to the fair, including Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, second man to orbit the earth, astronaut John Glenn, the first American in orbit, who came along with his space capsule, Friendship 7 which the public could see and touch. Boeing was also deeply involved in the space program, including the Apollo missions. It was the Boeing-built lunar orbiter that took the famous picture of the earth rising over the moon. Such "big blue marble" views of the planet came to symbolize Earth Day and a new way of looking at home.
The Sixties counter-culture was divided on the space program. Some saw technological progress as a positive. It helped us think globally about the earth as a unique and delicate ecosystem. Other progressives saw it as good for science and technological advancement. In the '70s, it was then-California governor Jerry Brown's notion of starting a state space academy and launching the Golden State's own communications satellite that gained him the unflattering nickname, "Governor Moonbeam." Apparently, if liberals saw promise in space it was merely another example of their lack of realism. Even many liberals pooh-poohed the space program as polluting, militaristic, and a waste of resources that could help feed people.
The Apollo program after the moon landing didn't help itself image-wise with Boomers whose loyalties to NASA might have been conflicted. Watching astronauts golf on the moon and drive around in their Boeing-made dune buggy hardly sent the message that our colonization would be any different than, say, suburban sprawl in the Sun Belt. Build a moon base and it'll probably soon look like Houston.
That sense informed my teenage skepticism here on earth: we've landed on the moon, now what? The '60s in Seattle were a time of growing environmental awareness, and also backlash against the post-World War II promises of progress. Grassroots groups fought to clean-up sewage flowing into Lake Washington. Citizens banned together to stop a new freeway through the Arboretum and many Seattleites opposed a second I-90 floating bridge across the lake. Progressives pushed for mass transit. People decried the Los Angelesization of central Puget Sound. How would going to the moon help us with these problems? Would the men on the moon simply spread malignant "progress" to another planet?
The skepticism was captured in a pamphlet on the Puget Sound Region summing up the state of things for the year 1967-1968 produced by the Puget Sound League of Women Voters:
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!